DUAL CRITICS REVIEW: ‘In The Heights’ at Players By The Sea Theatre

Over the years, Jacksonville Beach’s Players by the Sea community theatre has presented a number of outstanding summer musicals. This year’s selection, staged during July 20 – August 12, 2018 is noteworthy in many ways. In 2008, “In The Heights” was nominated for 13 Tony awards and won 4, including Best Musical and Best Original Score; in 2009, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize Award for drama.

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The play presents a slice of life story in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The community is ethnically diverse, with Hispanics being the largest group. The music and lyrics were composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up in The Heights. To prove he was more than a flash in the pan creator, he later wrote and starred in “Hamilton,” a hip-hop rendering of the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. It debuted in 2015 and remains one of the hottest musicals on Broadway. The FSCJ Artist Series has scheduled a Jacksonville road show for 2020.

“In The Heights” with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, and music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is brilliant art and a tribute to Hispanic-American heritage.

The action takes place on a neighborhood street where Daniel Dugan has captured a cityscape of small shops against the background of the imposing George Washington Bridge.

Dominican-American Usnavi (Matias De La Flor) runs a small bodega selling morning coffee, newspapers, lotto tickets, and groceries. He is romancing the lovely Vanessa (Rhea Ailani) who works at the beauty salon next door. The salon is owned by the opinionated but caring Daniela (Andrea Christina Vilarino).

Interesting characters live and work on this street, all of whom are fantastic singers who belt out lyrics both sweet and hot to music that includes hip-hop, mambo, rap, meringue, and salsa beats. Rousing dance filled with amazing energy is a hallmark of this show, especially notable when the neighborhood celebrates a summertime “Carnival del Barrio.”

Abuela Claudia, who cared for Usnaivi when his parents died earlier, is a revered elder who is like a grandmother to many younger residents. Nina (Zoe Rosas) is the first child in the barrio to go to college (Stanford), but returned home before completing the first year, because she didn’t have enough money to continue. Her father Kevin (Marcos Miranda) owns a small taxi company, and against his wishes, she has fallen in love with Benny (Isaiah Turner) an employee who works as a dispatcher. Kevin’s wife Camila (Raquel Lopez Cory) has her own opinions about this romance.

Other colorful characters include Sonny (Mario Nota), Usnavi’s flippant jokester cousin; Carla (Jay Sevilla), an employee at Daniela’s beauty shop; and Graffiti Pete (Andrew Phoenix), a skilled artist. Piragua (Elijah Turner) sells shaved ice from a pushcart, amusing us and his customers with comical song

Ensemble members do much of the dancing. Female members include Cameron Thomas, Emely Cuestes, Gemma Smith, Angie Acedera, Robersy Romero and Mia Vasquez. Male members included Javon Wrighten, Jamil Abdur-Rahmen, Alex Aponte, Walter Johnson, Darnell Bennett and Joel Oliver.

The excellent band hidden away back stage played flawlessly under the direction of Musical Director Anthony Felton who was also on piano. The musicians included David Ott (Guitar), Sean Tillis (Bass), Bit Risner (Trumpet) Alexander Hernandez (Woodwinds) and Luis Ocasio (Drums).

This spectacular show was made possible by the sponsorship of the Lazzara Family Foundation. Joe Kemper, who teaches and directs at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, has done a remarkable job of casting this show, filled with fine singers and dancers, that captures life at Subway Stop 181 in New York City’s Washington Heights community. Applause also goes to choreographer DeWitt Cooper for sharing his extensive knowledge of dance in this show.

Additional production crew members included Emilee Paris (Stage Manager), Jereme Raickett (Production Manager), Marquis Jarod (Costume Designer), and Nate Cimmino (Technical Director).

Don’t miss this exciting musical at Players by the Sea, 106 North 6th Street in Jacksonville Beach. For reservations call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.